Being Human 2012

The Science of Human Experience

Palace of Fine Arts / San Francisco, CA March 24, 2012 9am - 5:30pm

Social Rejection Hurts

Posted on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 3:59PM

Emotions occur in the body, and feeling happy or sad is first and foremost a physical process. It should come as little surprise, then, that neuroscientists have found some striking similarities between how social pain and physical pain appear in the brain. In fact, one study discovered that participants who took an over-the-counter painkiller reported feeling less social angst than those who took a placebo.

Both social pain and physical pain appear to be processed using the same regions of the brain, and the severe pain of social rejection (like getting dumped) is processed by the same part of the brain as the sensation of physical pain. Researchers also found that people who had a lower tolerance for physical pain had a similarly low tolerance for social pain compared to those who had a higher pain tolerance. This connection even extends to the ability of Tylenol to numb the feelings of rejection.

UCLA's Naomi Eisenberger, author of a recent paper on the subject, ponders why social pain might hurt us, and why dulling that unpleasant sensation with painkillers might not be advisable:

“I think it’s probably there for a reason—to keep us connected to others,” she said. “If we’re constantly numbing the feeling of social rejection, are we going to be more likely do things that get us rejected, that alienate us?”

These findings once again remind us of the powerful physical component of emotions. We likely evolved this response to social rejection in order to avoid it at all costs, because in our deep evolu

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